So, another year, another Stephen King book – it’s become somewhat of a highlight for me, that oh so special time another book drops. Of course we get the usual folks bemoaning about how King isn’t scary anymore, how his writing sucks, how he’s just a cash cow for his publisher and churning out mediocre titles one after the other. Many people believe the fall of King happened with his venture into crime fiction and his Bill Hodges trilogy (which was followed by The Oustider and the novella in If It Bleeds – that focuses on Holly Gibney), so I have bad news for that crowd because ‘Billy Summers’ sits firmly in his crime fiction territory. And I bloody loved it.
It’s hard not to see Twitter blowing up about how bad this book was, that the book was over in 200 pages so why did he bother writing the rest. But when I contemplated those I follow and who my twitter feed is mainly made up of, it’s predominantly the horror community (a community that I firmly love by the way – don’t go getting things twisted now), and well I wouldn’t class this book as horror at all – which may be why the reviews have been less favourable from that crowd.
I didn’t really know what to expect when I dived into Billy Summers, because after reading the blurb on the back of the book, all the points were covered in the first 200 pages. When I reached this point, I held the book out in front of myself and flicked through the remaining pages, there was around 300 pages left – and I did for a fleeting moment think ‘What the hell is he going to talk about now?’
But this my friends is King’s masterstroke and the story of Billy Summers was only just beginning.
With the introduction of Alice, the book (very much enjoyable up until that point) comes alive in the readers hand and we discover the true brilliance of King’s character work. There are also many allegories here too, of finding oneself in the mess of life, of living through regrets, of how the horrors of a childhood can shape a life, and how even in the depths of sadness we can find a shoot of hope to cling to.
King’s character work in ‘Billy Summers’ is exceptional, when is it not (some may say of this master of writing)? But in this book the characters feel alive, living and breathing entities that could walk through the door at any moment – but it’s the brokenness of these characters that pulls the reader in and allows these characters to live rent free in your mind. Alice is one such character that I feel will haunt me for a good many years, her story is so heartbreakingly troubled and how she comes into the book is horrific (I’ll keep the spoilers out of it) and how the relationship between her and Billy blooms in that place of chaos is truly beautiful – there are some hard hitting scenes and descriptions in this one that did make me curl my toes and get pretty angry – again another sign of how fabulous this story is. But I should also add that the work around our central character Billy is also something to marvel as King juggles his many personas very well indeed.
There are also a few Easter Eggs in this story which will keep the ardent King fan entertained and for those haters saying King hasn’t written a good ending since the early 90’s – well this one blew me away. I do also love it when King writes about characters that are writing, who remembers Misery and how the paperback had parts of the Misery novel in the book, Billy Summers has that too as our protagonist starts writing his memoir whilst waiting to assassinate his next target – it’s fabulous stuff.
So, in closing. Don’t listen to the reviews, make your own mind up… for me this is one of King’s best works in recent times, utterly gripping and full of emotion, it’s a book you have to give yourself fully to and trust me, you’ll reap the rewards.
Billy Summers is published by Hodder
Stephen King is the author of more than sixty books, all of them worldwide bestsellers. His recent work includes Sleeping Beauties (co-written with his son Owen King), the short story collection The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, the Bill Hodges trilogy End of Watch, Finders Keepers, and Mr. Mercedes (an Edgar Award winner for Best Novel, and shortlisted for the CWA Gold Dagger Award). Many of King’s books have been turned into celebrated films, television series and streamed events including The Shawshank Redemption, Gerald’s Game and It. King is the recipient of the 2014 National Medal of Arts and the 2003 National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. He lives in Bangor, Maine, with his wife, novelist Tabitha King.
Reviewed by Ross Jeffery
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